In many ways, Glacier National Park is the same today as it was a century ago when 1.2 million acres were set aside as America’s 10th national park. Glacier remains one of the most diverse and intact ecosystems in the world, yet the establishment of the park was crowbarred by a rush to build: a railway, lodges, trails and roads.
This year, Glacier aficionados celebrate the park’s 100th anniversary with commemorative events, historic displays and memorable trips along trails, upon lakes and over the famous Going-to-the-Sun Road. Fun for some visitors is a half-day whitewater trip on the Middle Fork of the Flathead River.
Splash, gurgle, laugh, laugh, laugh. “Ha, you all got wet!” shouts a man visiting the park with his family. The raft guide from Glacier Raft Company deftly turns the boat to face the next set of rapids, Class 3, he says, so that dry dad quickly becomes drenched dad.
The kids love it, especially since this time, they avoided a splashing in one of the river’s rapids, which range from gentle Class II to vigorous Class IV rapids with sections of scenic flat river in between.
A year ago in the spring, the Middle Fork peaked in mid May at over 11 feet, or 30,000 cubic feet of water per second (cfs), according to the USGS gauge at West Glacier. It was the highest mark the river had reached since 1996. This year will be closer to average for the rushing river.
“It’s an awesome level,” said Billy Carrol, a guide at Glacier Raft Company. He is quite adept at seeing to it that all dry dads get a dousing—all for fun, of course. “There are plenty of big wave trains, and rapids out there that we don’t get to see when the river is lower.”
Rarities are certainly part of a Glacier visit. Wildlife, seldom seen among the lower 48 states, have starring roles here. The Continental Divide is not only a stunning backdrop, but visitors get a view of divergent ecosystems on either side of what’s known as “the Backbone of the World.” Glacier, along with its Canadian sister, Waterton National Park, serves as a World Heritage Site and a Biosphere Reserve, designations that salute the twin parks as Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park, named in 1932.
About a 20-minute drive from the raft company headquarters in West Glacier is McDonald Lake Lodge, where guests may stay in the 1914 log structure or nearby lakeside cabins—100 guest rooms, and not one bad view. Campgrounds are nearby too.
Mule deer frequent the rocky beach in front of the lodge where Glacier Boat Company launches lake tours; bald eagles nest in treetops nearby; and the native flowers like fuchsia Fireweed and crimson Indian Paintbrush decorate the paths around the Lake McDonald area better than if landscapers planned the bouquet.
As park plant specialist Stacy Jacobsen explains to park visitors, she is part of a project to replace non-native plant species with native plants in Glacier, including Snowberry and Spiraea in place of invasive weeds.
“We salvaged native plants from the new Transit Center before it was built,” says Native Plant Nursery Manager, Amy Lijewski, who works with Jacobsen.
The Transit Center is a Centennial-era program in which visitors are encouraged to park private vehicles inside the West Glacier gate, and rely on state-of-the-art buses or the famous Red Buses with the storied “Jammers” at the wheel. A Red Bus Tour lessens the traffic and impact on the park, since the 1930s vehicles run on propane, 93 percent cleaner than gasoline. The “Jammer,” as the driver was called for the gear jamming while driving the Going-to-the-Sun Road in the early years, shares park history, historic sites and sights like the mountain goats that frequent the Logan Pass parking area.
Other Legacy Projects include upgrading trails and visitor facilities, preserving historic buildings like the Heaven’s Peak Fire Lookout, and continuing Citizen Science projects. More Legacy Projects are listed at https://www.glaciercentennial.org/Legacy_Projects.html. Restoring native plants remains a main component of visitors’ viewshed throughout the park.
“There are some challenging plants to transplant,” Lijewski admits. “We have a hard time with Beargrass, a lily, and with Huckleberry,” both showcase plants.
Beargrass, tufts of thick grass with a tall stalk and puffy lantern of a flower, dominates some of the 700 miles of hiking trails like the Highline Trail at Logan Pass. Once Beargrass blooms and then dies, a new stalk won’t bloom for another five to 10 years.
Huckleberries, as a tasty trailside fruit, attracts humans and bears August through October. While humans are asked to only pick as much as they can eat on an outing, the grizzly bears, of which Glacier is home to about 300 to 350, can eat gallons in an afternoon.
“Bears, moose, wolves, they are the big, charismatic animals that people come to see in Glacier,” says District Interpretive Ranger Matt Graves, who supervises interpretive talks around the park, including evening programs at Lake McDonald auditorium. “The greatest likelihood of seeing a grizzly bear is while hiking to Iceberg Lake or Grinnell Lake on the east side of the park near Many Glacier area, and along Going-to-the-Sun Road where it’s open so there’s good visibility.”
Graves adds that grizzlies, indeed all the animals of Glacier, are wild and should be treated as such. People should never approach any wild animal, remain at least 100 yards away from bears and 50 from other animals, and hike in groups while making loud noises so the animals know hikers are near.
During an evening interpretive session, Centennial coordinator Kass Hardy tells guests that people have stood, for thousands of years, below these peaks, beginning with Native Americans some 10,000 to 12,000 years ago.
Hardy talks about George Bird Grinnell, who is considered the Father of Glacier and coined the term, ‘Crown of the Continent.’” He also pushed Congress to make Glacier the 10th national park, of which it became so on May 11, 1910.
Hardy tips her ranger’s hat to the numerous celebratory activities in and around the park, including a seven-month-long film festival featuring films made here such as The Shining (the intro scene is Going-to-the-Sun Road), a fresh-air “Paint-Out” with artists creating their work in the field, and a campfire songfest. More events and dates/times are listed at www.glaciercentennial.org.